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Israel is a complicated land, and its complexities aren’t just political, but geographic and cultural, too. It may be a small country, but its location between the Syrian and Arabian deserts, Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea mean that tourists can sink their teeth into a wealth of vistas, culture, history, cuisine and markets. Here are 16 ways travel to Israel upends expectations.

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1) It’s not just one big desert.
The small country has a varied and incredible landscape and climate, offering seas, beaches, lakes, mountains, green fields, gardens, farms, andeven vineyards (more on that below). Only about half of Israel is desert terrain and it can get very cold on fall nights, while winter often brings flash floods. Catch a gorgeous beach-side at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv .

2) English-speakers will have no problems communicating with residents.

All signage in this democratic country is displayed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, the country’s three official languages. (Hebrew is the one most commonly spoken, but younger residents speak an increasing amount of English.) And in the Carmel food market, which is where you’ll want to spend most of your Tel Aviv hours sampling olives and dried fruit, everyone’s just yelling and pointing anyway.

3) Arabs and Muslims do live here, alongside Jewish people.
Of Israel’s 8.3 million inhabitants, 75% are Jewish, 20.7% are Arab, and the remaining 4.3% are “other,” which includes family members of Jewish immigrants, non-Arab Christians, non-Arab Muslims, and Baha’I. Despite the conflicts and problems that religion presents in this country, the underlying faith in God is strong. As one Israeli put it when passing over a zodiac wheel on the ground in Tel Aviv, “When you’re visiting theHoly Land, it’s like a wireless connection to God.” An Israeli guide even warned when entering Jerusalem that there was no way to truly prepare us for what we’re about to see, and to bring tissues no matter what our faith since, “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all are movingly demonstrated here.”

 

Related: Blogger tips: How to travel off the beaten path anywhere.

Look through the slideshow gallery to see a door in Old Jaffa, Old city rooftops, and a mashrabiya in Jerusalem—an intricate wood screen that once masked interiors in the Arab world. Mashrabiya made it possible for Muslim women to enjoy cool breezes and views of the street, and still allowed them to remain hidden from occupants of the street beneath them. Below is a shot of 7th-generation Israeli storyteller and uber-knowledgeable licensed tour guide Ori Stern with his friend Amin (whose excellent falafel stand is on Wady Road which runs from the Wailing Wall to the 3rd station of the Cross).

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4) Artistic, funky shops and boutique hotels are just waiting to be discovered on Old Jaffa’s side streets in Tel Aviv.
Zielinski & Rozen is a perfumerie that offers custom-blended perfumes based on not only your scent preferences, but also one’s own personal scent and lifestyle (i.e. if you wear scent daily or on special occasions). It’s tucked on a side street, (and doesn’t advertise), so going inside feels like discovering a secret. The owner, Erez Rozen, compares building an individual scent to building a pyramid, using the traditional concepts of high, middle, and base notes. Another shop called Open.Space sells high-end organic cotton caftans and the modernist, 1920s-feeling Norman Hotel is lushly landscaped and located amidst other cultural attractions in the “White City,” Tel Aviv’s famous UNESCO heritage site, comprised of historic Bauhaus architecture.

5) The glamorous beaches in Tel-Aviv are reminiscent of Greece and Italy.
It feels verysafe walking the gorgeous promenade in Tel Aviv, (which has multiple restaurant offerings and shops along the path).

6) There are wineries!
Actually, there are over 200 of them. For a lesson in intense and genius-level irrigation, (which is what makes an Israeli wine industry possible), visit ‘Ish Ha’anavim’ (AKA: “Grape Man—Wine & Spirit Center”) to taste local wines. Pro tip: The white wines are better suited to the local foods, such as fish, olive oil, and vegetables.

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7) The breakfasts are insanely fresh and delicious. 
You know all those books about the cholesterol-lowering wonders of the Mediterranean diet? The ridiculously fresh, diverse, and enormous breakfasts in Israel drive home the heart-healthy point. This style of breakfast (which includes fresh vegetables, juice, eggs, bread, and milk originated on Israeli collective farms; the kibbutz). Hotels, who must keep kosher, couldn’t offer dairy foods with meat, so they expanded the kibbutz breakfast and developed these extravagant buffets. Many believe that enjoying decadent breakfasts is one of the main pleasures of visiting this country. The spreads include but are definitely not limited to: Shakshuka (a baked egg dish), fresh salmon, herring and mackerel, eggs, blintzes, waffles, fresh fruit, vegetable salad, cereal, a variety of yogurts spreads, and sauces. So, don’t sleep in.

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8) Tel-Aviv has a fantastic feminist art museum, with work based around folk-art, death and decay.
The nonprofit Ilana Goor Museum in Tel Aviv’s Old Jaffa City includes sensory-laden sculpture and paintings by Ms. Goor and other artists, much of which is based on folk art, death, and decay—yet the works are absolutely beautiful. It doesn’t hurt that the museum is situated in an 18th century building flanked by the picturesque Tel Aviv shoreline.

9) The sheer magnitude of this land’s vast history is overwhelming.
In places like the coastal plain Caesarea, a town given to King Herod by Augustus Caesar and built up by Herod circa 25 BCE—where chariot races a la Ben Hur occurred, and the apostle Paul was supposedly tried and jailed—it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the land’s history. The impressive site of Caesarea is still in use, it’s Roman theater hosting concerts by major international artists such as Deep Purple, Bjork and others.

 

10) The diminutive nature of the Sea of Galilee.
Though it might loom large in the mind of anyone who attended Bible studies, the Sea of Galilee is only 13 by 8 miles, and peppered with small towns around it, making for a nice perimeter drive. After taking it in, try The Decks Restaurant in the beach town of Tiberias. The proprietress is friendly and engaging and the restaurant is sprawling and homey—serving up barbecue in all varieties of Chinese and Thai styles. A half-hour away is the Mount of Beautitudes.

 

11) There’s a McDonald’s at Masada, King Herod’s two-thousand-year-old desert fortress.
The outer perches of this UNESCO World Heritage site that’s basically an impenetrable fortress fortified and built by King Herod offers intense vistas of the Dead Sea and surrounding desert land. (A cable car brings you up to Masada’s top, or you can make the low walk, which takes about 90 minutes. On the inside, you’ll see intricate blue/white marble tile floors that make up the ancient bathhouse section of the fortress. But more prosaically, at the ticket counter, the food court offers a stand for salads, falafel, and yes, a Mickey D’s for American tourists out of their element. The ibex pictured below was successfully gaming tourists for fast-food treats.

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12) Not all the Dead Sea beaches are epic.
At 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It’s got the highest concentration of salt in the world and called “dead” because its salinity prohibits life forms in the lake. It’s revered for its healing benefits, and many say the sea salts produced here promote good health and the black mud nourishes the skin.) There are several official Dead Sea beaches and they offer different experiences. Entering the Ein Gedi public beach (complete with a shop selling Ahava products) was pretty pedestrian: a chaotic, messy locker room, a makeshift ladder and rope handle to get you safely into the salty, sulfur-y smelling water without slipping on rocks (helpful, because landing face-first in the super salty water would be painful.) However, other non-public beaches that charge a fee offer a more spa-like experience. Another pro tip: Don’t shave for about a day before, or the extreme salt will irritate broken skin.

Related: 10 very cool things to do in Tel Aviv.

13) Evidently, the Kardashians enjoy Israel travels, and when they visit Jerusalem, the Mamilla Hotel is where they stay.
With its spectacular food, large bathtubs and espresso machines in each room, a view overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, and a Holistic Well-Being Center, it does not disappoint. Below is a view from a Mamilla balcony, of a full moon over the Old City and interior shots of the hotel.

 

14) You can view up-close, but not actually walk inside, The Garden of Gethsemane.
The garden where Jesus Christ is said to have spent his last night alive is very small with protective border walls (so you can’t actually walk amidthe trees and flowers, only look out at them.) Understandable, given the garden’s intense history.

15) It IS possible to tire of the best falafel and shawarma on earth (but it takes an entire week).
This is shawarma from a vendor just a few steps from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That’s not a filter: the pickled turnip really is that pink.

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16) The Western Wall is less somber than you’d think (but still extremely moving).
Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall (AKA “Wailing Wall”) is a small western segment of the walls surroundingan area called the Temple Mount by Jews, Christians, and most Western sources, and known as the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims. Whatever your faith, the wall is often described as providing a “direct connection from people to god;” and so when you approach, you’ll find people softly chanting, praying, and yes, weeping. On the less romantic side, many are also talking, laughing, taking pictures, singing loudly in groups, crying into handkerchiefs, and jamming bits of paper with handwritten prayers into the wall’s crevices.

 

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Tagged: Destinations, Israel, Middle East

Gretchen Kalwinski

Gretchen Kalwinski

Gretchen is a Chicago-based arts, culture and travel writer, and writing coach. She’s working on her first novel, and tweets sporadically at @gretchel.
Gretchen Kalwinski

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One thought on “16 ways travel to Israel will surprise you”

  1. I was a volunteer at Artspace Tel Aviv, nonprofit art center and art gallery in south Tel Aviv, an area called Kiryat Ha’Melacha. I must say it’s a great place to start exploring art studios and culture of the neighborhood which has a lot to offer: contemporary galleries, street art and graffiti, artists studios, tours of the area and much more. We just finished making a new map of the galleries in the area and it’s ready for pick-up in the space, including a list of all the exhibitions showing in the surrounding area. They have a beautiful renovated website (www.artspacetlv.org) where you can find out about new exhibition openings, open artists studios, lectures and workshops, and more. It operates as a visitor center and a place of connection between artists and the viewing public. Their exhibitions change frequently, and they also have very affordable prices for art by local artists with studios nearby. Their staff speaks both Hebrew and English and can help you plan your art visit. You are welcome to come check it out when you find yourself in Tel Aviv and hungry for some art and community! Julia

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